Who wouldn’t prefer a big juicy retainer?

Advertising traditionally calls the shots over design. But in the current climate, Franco Bonadio says it’s not quite that simple

Working in design – it’s so bloody tough and unfair, but we’ve had a good time in the past, with plenty of projects, nice clients and freedom to push the creative boundaries. Then suddenly it all changed and work wasn’t there anymore. And now it’s so hard to grow again and even harder to see the future for design.

There is a simple reason, of course. It’s someone else’s fault – the common enemy, someone to blame everything on and channel all our disappointment through.

No, I’m not talking about clients or the economy. This is a bigger foe and is actually related to us. Yes, it’s our more successful, swaggeringly confident marketing services brother -advertising. He’s taken all our clients and their money, and he can offer it all: design and everything else thrown in.

The irony is that design is a bigger business, worth £15bn, while adland is valued at a measly £12bn and most of that isn’t even derived from fee-income – it is media spend. We in design tower over the advertising sector in terms of size. So, what’s our problem?

Last month I visited the offices of legendary advertising agency Bartle Bogle Hegarty. What an inspiring place it is. I emerged thinking I had seen the future, but then it had me looking back to my days working in an equally amazing building, all bridges and open-plan spaces, nice food in the staff canteen and with the enigmatic Rodney Fitch leading the charge. That was back in the 1990s, with more than 300 of us designing everything from architecture and all the stuff in the middle, right through to product design. We even had an in-house research team. BBH felt just like that and the building was similar too, so I ended up feeling a bit sad.

Of course, we only have ourselves to blame. We haven’t built a strong enough business model to maintain our growth. Instead, we’ve fragmented into tiny versions of our former selves. Designers are a self-sufficient lot. Now we have mastered the Mac, we find ourselves not needing anyone – small wonder the latest Design Council report, Industry Insights (pictured below), suggests 87 per cent of us run our businesses with fewer than five people.

I have no idea where that £15bn in design fees went last year because I was scrambling around doing £20 pitches – and there were zillions of us going for them, disparate and ready to show what we could do.

I told last month’s Designers Breakfast Club that our business [at any moment] is about six weeks away from bankruptcy. There is no safe yearly retainer for us. We have to go hunting the next client down as soon as we have won something. Meanwhile, our advertising brethren are tucking into £50 000-a-month retainers, doing whatever their clients want and creating lots of nice ads, too.

So it’s not hard to decide which industry is doing better, or at the very least see where the cash is going. Our problem is how to develop our business when we can’t see further ahead than a month or two? Investing in the future becomes a high-risk strategy.

However, despite these challenges, the design industry is still growing, diversifying and adapting. So why can’t we just tell clients we are a retained business, too? It’s certainly not for want of asking, but the client answer is almost always ’No, sorry. This is a one off and it’s a fixed-fee job’. So it remains a project-based purgatory for us, my design friends.

But wait a minute – be careful what you wish for. Maybe a project-based life isn’t so bad? I earn less, of course, but I have a pretty reasonable work/life balance, unlike those in advertising who seem to be forever pitching for new clients while existing ones are screaming for attention because they think they own the agency’s soul. Advertising people have to work long and hard, remember – small wonder our Belgian ad cousins went on strike recently.

Maybe design businesses are better off the way they are: lean, hungry and adaptable. We are so pared down that we can be quick and ready for new opportunities and change ahead. And perhaps the growth answer lies in more design collaboration – together we are stronger. Maybe our future lies in us all working together towards the same aim, in a modern co-operative way with different skills united by design. This way, we can potentially grow again and return to better times.

Then we might not feel so small and puny when pitted against our advertising colleagues. Instead, we could square up next to them, shoulder to shoulder, and compete once more for a share of their clients – and their budgets.

But would I swap all that for a regular retainer income? Hmmm. Let me think…

Franco Bonadio is chief executive of Identica

Design vs advertising

Advertising – the sector might seem in rude health, with fat retainers and full-service business models which usurp the role of design groups, but staff burn out under pressure and existing clients suffer from agencies’ obsession with new business. It’s also smaller than the design industry

Design – consultants might be shackled by project-based fixed fees, but the lean-and-hungry nature of the sector means it’s well prepared for the future

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